17 years ago, when we were planning our wedding, my soon-to-be mother-in-law insisted that the reception include a toast “to absent friends”. At the time I was blase about it – my friends weren’t absent. They were at the wedding. That was the whole point, wasn’t it?
These days I have a profound understanding of that toast, particularly in the lead up to Christmas, surely one of the most bitter-sweet times on the western calendar. Renowned as a time to spend with loved ones, Christmas contains a heart rending sadness when some of those loved ones are out of reach. It’s a time to ache for friends far away, but even more for friends gone forever.
I have never been good at letting go – limpets have a grip that is positively lax in comparison. I have been known to pine for defunct friendships long past the point where rational people would let go. And I have many dear friends overseas, out of reach of the hugs I long to share with them, but at least there is the phone.
It’s the friends I can no longer call that really break my heart at this time of year. I tend to be expressive and affectionate, so there is not much I left unsaid. I don’t regret not telling them how important they are to me – they certainly knew. But at a time when we reconnect with our loved ones, their absence is a gaping wound in my heart.
They say that time heals all wounds, but it turns out there are some wounds that don’t heal – you simply learn to live with them. 14 years on I still cry for my best friend, Di, killed in a car accident at the age of 24. We never got to say goodbye. And nearly 4 years on I still cry for my kindred spirit, James, whose body finally gave out on him, 15 years after the doctors first predicted his death. He was in his 70s, we did get to say goodbye, and it turns out that saying goodbye isn’t a great help.
This year my friend Mike died of pancreatic cancer. He left behind a young family, and a horde of grieving friends. Another desperate hole in the world, where there should be light and laughter.
Our hearts reach out to those we have bonded with, especially now. For those we can touch, the bond, and our hearts are strengthened. For those we can no longer reach, the ache is fierce. They are alive in spirit as long as we remember them.
Reach out to your friends and loved ones. Make the most of these moments when you can touch them and tell them what they mean to you. And remember those you have lost. Let them live in your heart. Here’s to absent friends.